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April 25, 2011 11:52 pm
Absenteeism is costing British business £32bn a year, with workers taking twice as many sick days as their counterparts in the US and Asia, according to research by PwC, the professional services firm.
It found UK workers took an average of 10 days’ unscheduled absence from their jobs each year, higher than the 5.5 days for workers in the US and 4.5 in the Asia-Pacific region, but on a par with the west European average of 9.7 days.
The findings come after the government launched an independent review – led by David Frost of the British Chambers of Commerce and Dame Carol Black, the government’s national director for health and work – aimed at stemming the flow of people from work to sickness benefit.
David Cameron, prime minister, called for an end to the “sicknote culture” that meant a short spell of sickness absence could become a slide into long-term benefit dependency.
Sickness accounted for 80 per cent of absences in PwC’s research, which also covered jury service and compassionate leave. The data were drawn from a database of 2,000 companies worldwide, including 300 in the UK. The public sector had the UK’s highest absence levels, averaging 12.2 days compared with 9.7 days in the private sector.
With the average UK salary at about £25,000, the study said absenteeism was costing business approximately £32bn a year, substantially higher than previous studies by bodies such as the CBI employers’ group have suggested.
PwC argued its figure was likely to be conservative, as it reflected direct cost of absence only and did not take into account potential replacement costs and lost productivity.
Richard Phelps, human resources consulting partner at PwC, said: “Absenteeism is a malaise for British business. With sickness accounting for the lion’s share of absence, the question for employers is what can be done to improve health, morale and motivation.”
The line between “sickie” and “sickness” could be blurred, he said, with disenchantment at work sometimes exacerbating medical conditions or preventing a speedy return. “One might assume the perceived US work culture of long hours and short holidays could lead to higher stress and sick rates,” he added.
“Our data suggest otherwise, or perhaps demonstrate that strong employee engagement and commitment can override workplace pressures. For a variety of reasons, there seems to be a hunger among workers in US and Asia to go the extra mile.”
The study found that, in the UK, technology companies had the lowest absence rates at 7.6 days, perhaps reflecting the importance of intellectual capital. Banking and finance were close behind at 7.8 days. But retail and leisure had the highest absence rate in the private sector at 11.5 days, followed by engineering and manufacturing at 11 days.
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